HELL OR HIGH WA­TER

Big-wave thrillseeker Mark Visser on em­brac­ing fear to be­come a bet­ter man.

Men's Health (Australia) - - Contents - [ BY BEN JHOTY ]

Mark Visser gazed at the stars stud­ding the night sky as his jet-ski sped across a roil­ing Hawai­ian sea. It was 2.30am on Jan­uary 20, 2011 and Visser was headed to­ward a reck­on­ing that had taken four years of prepa­ra­tion and been a life­time in the mak­ing.

When he ar­rived he’d be at­tempt­ing some­thing no­body had ever done be­fore - surf Maui’s Pe’ahi, also known as Jaws and widely re­garded as the world’s most treach­er­ous break, at night. The rea­son it hadn’t been done be­fore? No­body thought it could be.

But Visser was do­ing more than just trail­blaz­ing. There in the cold night headed to­ward a rag­ing sea, he’d al­ready turned a fear into a fan­tasy. In a way that was the easy part. Now he had to turn fan­tasy into re­al­ity. If he could do that, he reck­oned, he would leave a life­time of in­se­cu­rity and self-doubt in his wake. He’d be free.

“In the pitch black it was prob­a­bly the most in­tense ride out of my life,” says Visser, re­call­ing the event, known as ‘Night Rider’, from a lounge chair on the deck of his house on the Sun­shine Coast. “All the what-ifs that you’re try­ing to block out to stay in the mo­ment come flood­ing back in.”

As Visser and his crew got in po­si­tion the scene re­sem­bled a war zone – jet-skis to tow him into the wave’s path bobbed in the wa­ter, while two chop­pers hov­ered over­head.

“I re­mem­ber see­ing one of the big­gest sets, it had to be a 50 foot (15m) face and where I could see all the stars they lit­er­ally just van­ished be­cause they were taken out by white­wa­ter,” he says. “I was like, holy shit!”

Visser felt his body re­spond to the adren­a­line. “My heart was pound­ing so hard I swear my eye­balls were puls­ing with ev­ery beat,” he says.

His first chal­lenge was to match the speed of the wave. “At Jaws it’s like a wind fun­nel,” he says. “It just siphons in there. You have to be mov­ing at least 50km/h to match the pace of the wave.”

Visser’s board shud­dered and bucked be­neath him as he blindly hit chops and bumps in the surf. As the wave peaked and he be­gan to plunge down its face he had just one thought: stay on your feet.

Video footage of Visser’s feat shows a glow­ing avatar-like fig­ure blast­ing down a gi­gan­tic, fast­mov­ing mound of wa­ter. Visser’s eyes had now ad­justed so he could see “shad­ows within shad­ows” in the inky swell. He re­mem­bers hear­ing squeal­ing “like a high­pitched fan” as his fins cut the wa­ter’s sur­face.

He caught the wave. Then he caught an­other. “There was a point where I felt like I was so present that I was glid­ing down a moun­tain,” he re­mem­bers. “I could ac­tu­ally see the stars and the moon and I could just go ‘wow, this is the dream that I once saw’.”

Visser ended up catch­ing 14 waves that night, each one push­ing his child­hood fears of the ocean fur­ther and fur­ther into sub­mis­sion.

“From where I came from – be­ing afraid of the wa­ter – Night Rider was the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing Mt Ever­est,” says Visser, snap­ping out of his reverie. “It was about set­ting me free as a per­son. I could fi­nally ac­cept my­self.”

Visser knows how that sounds. “The idea that I couldn’t ac­cept my­self un­til I achieved this is cra­zier than all the crazy shit I’ve ever done,” he says.

He’s right. But as his story shows, to achieve your ver­sion of the im­pos­si­ble, your dream, you have to be will­ing to tackle your deep­est fears, open your­self up to pain and hu­mil­i­a­tion, foren­si­cally dis­sect your weak­nesses and then work tire­lessly to turn them into strengths. And you have to be crazy enough to dream in the first place.

RE­WRITE YOUR STORY

It’s pos­si­ble Visser was never meant to be a surfer. Born on a farm out­side Wan­garatta in coun­try Vic­to­ria, he was two when he dropped a peach into a sheep’s trough, dived in after it and had to be pulled out by his older brother. That ex­pe­ri­ence may have set a course for a life where he could never quite es­cape the depths of his own in­se­cu­rity. If it didn’t, a near drown­ing a cou­ple of years later at Port­sea on the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula brought his fears right to the sur­face, in­still­ing a dread of the ocean and tor­pe­do­ing his self-con­fi­dence for years to come.

Had his fam­ily not moved to Mooloolaba in Queens­land when Visser was 10, who knows whether he ever would have rid­den a surf­board? Or if he’d still be afraid of the wa­ter.

Ev­ery­one in Mooloolaba surfed. Visser watched them from the shore in awe. The ocean had an ir­re­sistible pull, he says. He was drawn to it and at the same time ter­ri­fied by it. You’ve prob­a­bly had a sim­i­lar ob­ject of fear and fas­ci­na­tion. Maybe it’s a girl; per­haps it’s the idea of quit­ting your 9-5 to start your own busi­ness.

Even­tu­ally the wa­ter’s pull proved too strong. He started surf­ing ev­ery day and while he no longer feared drown­ing in a purely phys­i­cal sense, he couldn’t shake the feel­ing that he wasn’t good enough. It was a feel­ing that would grow like a tape­worm in­side him over the next 20 years.

Visser may have come to surf­ing late com­pared to his fel­low grom­mets but he was stub­born enough to keep head­ing out and catch­ing waves. He got bet­ter, win­ning some comps and at­tract­ing spon­sors. Even­tu­ally he had a crack at pro surf­ing’s World Qual­i­fy­ing Se­ries but as the pond got big­ger the com­pe­ti­tion got steeper. Visser was com­ing to a re­al­i­sa­tion: small waves were not his strength or, frankly, his bag. He didn’t like catch­ing a wave only to do one turn, then watch the wa­ter drib­ble away be­neath him. As luck would have it a spon­sor sug­gested he have a crack at big waves in­stead.

Visser never looked back. He

NIGHT RIDER WAS ABOUT SET­TING ME FREE. I COULD FI­NALLY AC­CEPT MY­SELF.

fin­ished run­ner-up in the Oak­ley ASL Big Wave Awards from 2008-2011. Per­haps it should have been enough to sub­due his men­tal demons. But Visser’s thought pro­cesses were still cor­rupted by child­hood in­se­cu­ri­ties, man­i­fest­ing in a neg­a­tive per­sonal nar­ra­tive: ‘I can’t do this be­cause of that’. It was, he says, look­ing back, a defence mech­a­nism de­vised by his ego. “Your ego wants to keep you safe by say­ing, you can’t do this, you’re go­ing to die,” he says. “That thought process will stop you do­ing things so you can stay safe.”

You’ve prob­a­bly got sto­ries you tell your­self, fears you’ve sup­pressed and dreams you’ve buried. It could be some­thing sim­ple. You’d like to run a marathon but you can’t be­cause you sucked at Cross Coun­try back at school, so you never even con­sider it an op­tion. Or maybe it’s some­thing where the stakes are a lit­tle higher. Maybe you pos­sess a hid­den tal­ent but you’re too afraid to ex­pose your­self to pub­lic scru­tiny be­cause you’re not re­ally an artist, writer, painter or chef and be­sides, what if peo­ple laughed at you? What if you failed? What if…

Visser be­lieves neg­a­tive thought pro­cesses haunt us all. He also be­lieves it takes at least six months for most peo­ple to ar­rest dam­ag­ing and self-de­feat­ing in­te­rior mono­logues. That’s most peo­ple. Visser? He took nine, leav­ing him­self notes around the house to help re­wire his brain to a pos­i­tive de­fault set­ting.

The hard­est part, he warns, is mak­ing your­self vul­ner­a­ble. “The key to tak­ing on chal­lenges is to be an open-hearted war­rior with­out a weapon or pad­ding,” he says. “When you’re vul­ner­a­ble that’s when you’re open enough that you can be­come all you want to be.”

It takes hard work and per­sis­tence but once you fix that faulty men­tal wiring and re­write your story, Visser says, you reach a point where doubts be­come ab­stract rather than in­trin­sic, wash­ing over you like waves. With no defence mech­a­nism “pro­tect­ing” him, there was noth­ing to stop Visser dream­ing big. Like 60-foot big.

DRINK THE WA­TER

Dur­ing the four years of prepa­ra­tion it took to get Night Rider off the ground, Visser faced many po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing ob­sta­cles and mo­ments when he was close to quit­ting. In such times he’d of­ten re­flect on some ad­vice that he’d once dis­missed as the worst he’d ever re­ceived. It came from his man­ager Steve’s brother, ten­nis star Pat Rafter.

“I asked him ‘what’s the se­cret to suc­cess?’” Visser re­calls. “I was look­ing for the sil­ver bul­let. He said ‘hard work, hard work and more hard work’. I re­mem­ber look­ing at him and think­ing, that is the shittest an­swer I’ve been given in my life.” Visser probed the ten­nis great for more. Be­cause there had to be more, didn’t there?

“I was like, ‘ok cool, what else would you say there is?’ He looked at me like I was an id­iot and said, ‘Man I just told you.’” Visser was re­minded of the story a few years later when he heard a rather unique strat­egy for avoid­ing de­hy­dra­tion. “Some­one said, ‘if you’re de­hy­drated, you’ve just got to drink some wa­ter’. Some­one else then goes, ‘ok cool, do you need to add some mag­ne­sium, three of these things, two of those and they’re like, ‘no you just need to drink some wa­ter’.”

Visser’s new book The Big Wave Method is a mas­ter class in un­tan­gling the trip wires your mind puts in place to pre­vent you from achiev­ing your dreams. It’s full of straight­for­ward ad­vice you could eas­ily dis­miss as sim­plis­tic or even self-ev­i­dent if it hadn’t been writ­ten by some­one who’s ac­tu­ally walked the walk. Through the course of the book Visser chips away at the mys­ti­cism we so of­ten at­tach to ex­tra­or­di­nary feats. Be­cause even the most re­mark­able achieve­ment, he ar­gues, is or­di­nary, mun­dane even, once it’s bro­ken down into its com­po­nent parts.

“Some­times the an­swer seems too ob­vi­ous and so we try and find this magic bul­let al­most to prove how hard the chal­lenge is,” Visser says. “The an­swer is just as sim­ple as drink the fuck­ing wa­ter.” And keep drink­ing it.

PRE­PARE FOR THE WORST

Ask Visser if he’s an adren­a­line junkie and he laughs. “In com­par­i­son to other big-wave guys I’d con­sider my­self a semi-pussy,” he says be­fore adding, “when it comes to the mo­ment, yes I’m in that war­rior state of mind, but in the lead-up to Night Rider I was a big­ger pussy than any­one. It was my abil­ity to ac­cept that and pre­pare ac­cord­ingly that be­came my ul­ti­mate strength.”

The truth is to take on a mon­u­men­tal chal­lenge you need to freak out a lit­tle. In do­ing so you make your­self put in the work. In the lead up to Night Rider, Visser trained with top free diver An­thony Wil­liams, boosting his abil­ity to hold his breath from an al­ready re­mark­able four min­utes to an as­ton­ish­ing six min­utes. To get over his fear of sharks he re­searched their habits, then did a 26km pad­dle in the dark to as­sure him­self he wouldn’t be eaten alive. A few days later he did a 100ft (30m) free dive onto a ship­wreck where he knew sharks were likely to be hang­ing around. He’ll never know if they were there so dark was it at the bot­tom.

By the time it came to Night Rider, Visser es­ti­mates that from a risk-anal­y­sis per­spec­tive there was prob­a­bly a 3-4 per cent chance of some­thing re­ally bad hap­pen­ing.

“The amount of prepa­ra­tion and train­ing I put in was al­most ridicu­lous, way above and be­yond what was nec­es­sary,” he says. “If you pre­pare for the worst-case sce­nario, hope for the best and you end up some­where in be­tween then you’re still ahead.”

STAY IN THE MO­MENT

Five days be­fore Night Rider Visser woke up in a cold sweat. “I was ter­ri­fied, think­ing ‘am I go­ing to die?’” You’ve prob­a­bly had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences be­fore an event that makes you anx­ious, whether it’s your first triathlon or a best man’s speech. You pic­ture your­self in the sit­u­a­tion. You catas­trophise.

Few sports re­quire you to be more in the mo­ment than surf­ing yet the irony is, to pre­pare for that one mas­sive mo­ment, Visser needed to be con­sciously present in all the mi­nor mo­ments lead­ing up to it.

“I would pur­pose­fully tell my­self, ‘I’m think­ing about what I have to do in five days but what have I got to do right now? I’ve got to go to train­ing right now in this ex­act mo­ment’.” For you, stay­ing present could be as sim­ple as main­tain­ing strict form on chin-ups or feel­ing your chest hit the ground on ev­ery push-up.

This con­stant fo­cus on the present had the ul­ti­mate re­ward dur­ing Night Rider when, after man­ag­ing to ab­sorb the fear that threat­ened to over­whelm him, Visser was able to take that mo­ment on the board to look up at the stars.

At the same time, as he hur­tled down the wave at nearly 80km/h, there were those words that kept ring­ing in his head. Words he’d been say­ing to him­self for a very long time. Words that speak to surf­ing’s very essence: “stay on your feet”.

“I knew if I said ‘don’t fall off’, all I’d hear would be ‘fall off’,” Visser ex­plains. “If you re­di­rect your mind to only think what you want you’ve got more chance of achiev­ing it.”

This kind of sub­tle men­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion in­formed ev­ery as­pect of Visser’s phys­i­cal and men­tal ap­proach to Night Rider and con­tin­ues to­day as he pre­pares for his next chal­lenge, Operation Deep Blue, in which he’ll parachute out of a plane to surf the big­gest wave in the world.

What­ever dream you set for your­self you’d be wise to ap­ply a sim­i­lar pos­i­tive slant. The rea­son, as al­ways, is sim­ple. You can’t change the size of the swell, the length of a race or the gra­di­ent of a path. But what you can do is con­trol the mes­sages that fill your head. And whether you’re a surfer or not, when things hang in the bal­ance what you tell your­self could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween wip­ing out and the ride of your life.

WHEN YOU’RE VUL­NER­A­BLE THAT’S WHEN YOU’RE OPEN ENOUGH THAT YOU CAN BE­COME ALL YOU WANT TO BE

Night ter­rors: Visser rides Jaws in the dark.

Swell guy: Visser swapped fear for fan­tasy, demons for dreams.

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